Profits Over Promises: IBM Sells Facial Recognition Tech to British Government

September 18, 2023

Just three years after it swore off any involvement in facial recognition software, IBM has made an about-face. The Verge reports, “IBM Promised to Back Off Facial Recognition—Then it Signed a $69.8 Million Contract to Provide It.” Amid the momentous Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, IBM’s Arvind Krishna wrote a letter to Congress vowing to no longer supply “general purpose” facial recognition tech. However, it appears that is exactly what the company includes within the biometrics platform it just sold to the British government. Reporter Mark Wilding writes:

“The platform will allow photos of individuals to be matched against images stored on a database — what is sometimes known as a ‘one-to-many’ matching system. In September 2020, IBM described such ‘one-to-many’ matching systems as ‘the type of facial recognition technology most likely to be used for mass surveillance, racial profiling, or other violations of human rights.'”

In the face of this lucrative contract IBM has changed its tune. It now insists one-to-many matching tech does not count as “general purpose” since the intention here is to use it within a narrow scope. But scopes have a nasty habit of widening to fit the available tech. The write-up continues:

“Matt Mahmoudi, PhD, tech researcher at Amnesty International, said: ‘The research across the globe is clear; there is no application of one-to-many facial recognition that is compatible with human rights law, and companies — including IBM — must therefore cease its sale, and honor their earlier statements to sunset these tools, even and especially in the context of law and immigration enforcement where the rights implications are compounding.’ Police use of facial recognition has been linked to wrongful arrests in the US and has been challenged in the UK courts. In 2019, an independent report on the London Metropolitan Police Service’s use of live facial recognition found there was no ‘explicit legal basis’ for the force’s use of the technology and raised concerns that it may have breached human rights law. In August of the following year, the UK’s Court of Appeal ruled that South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition technology breached privacy rights and broke equality laws.”

Wilding notes other companies similarly promised to renounce facial recognition technology in 2020, including Amazon and Microsoft. Will governments also be able to entice them into breaking their vows with tantalizing offers?

Cynthia Murrell, September 18, 2023


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